The Jewish Athena: The Political Genesis of the State of Israel

by | Spring 2016
Julius Sykes

Julius Sykes

I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in the nearby city of Lebanon. I received my associate of arts degree while serving in the United States Navy, the third consecutive generation in my family... read more
I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in the nearby city of Lebanon. I received my associate of arts degree while serving in the United States Navy, the third consecutive generation in my family to have served in this branch. I settled in the Aiken area after marrying the former Ashley New, a particularly delightful native of South Carolina, and began attending the University of South Carolina Aiken in Spring 2013. Since then, I have been named to the Dean’s List (Spring 2013) and the President’s List (Fall 2013). The decision to declare a history major came naturally; I have entertained a passionate interest in history since reading a biography of Julius Caesar when I was in the fourth grade. My particular fondness for studying Roman civilization and its long legacy made the coronation of Charlemagne a highly appealing subject for research, involving as it does the three major claimants to Romanitas (the Eastern Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Holy Roman Empire). My first major research project, it helped provide practical experience with research methods, interpretation of sources, and synthesis of material into a coherent narrative. I am deeply grateful to all the mentors I have had throughout my academic and professional careers, including Carol Fedders, Karen Fout, Don Dilg, Celena Williams, Dave Roy, Cathy Keefe, Suzie Fowler-Tutt, Vicki Collins, and Alexia Helsley, who oversaw the writing of “Purple Reign: Emperor Charles’s Roman Holiday, December 25, 800” for her highly informative and enjoyable class on the birth of modern Europe.

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The Jewish Athena:
The Political Genesis of the State of Israel

By Julius Sykes
Faculty mentor: Roger Deal, Associate Professor of History at USC Aiken


At 4 o’clock p.m. on Thursday, May 14, 1948, a committee of Zionist Jewish leaders met in the Tel Aviv Art Museum beneath a portrait of Zionist ideologue Theodor Herzl and promulgated the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. This document announced the creation of a republican nation-state that would function as the “National Home” promised to Zionists in Palestine in the British Government’s Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. On paper, this realized the ambition pursued by Zionist Jews since the late nineteenth century; however, there remained work to be done if the declaration were to be more than a scrap of paper. It is one thing to declare a new state, and another to actually exist as one. The existence of the new Israel was far from certain, given the very real and very dangerous hostility of its neighbors. On May 15, the newly-declared state—not yet a full 24 hours old—was invaded by Arab armies from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, in the first of several Arab-Israeli wars.[1] The newborn Israel decisively halted the initial invasion and then seized extensive land in the Galilee and the Negev, emerging from the conflict with an organized national government firmly in control of the territory it claimed.[2] Despite decades of disputes over tactics and strategy, Zionist Jewish factions had succeeded in achieving their common goal, erecting an independent state apparatus in the teeth of Arab opposition and British ambivalence. Like Athena of Greek mythology, Israel had leaped fully-formed from the drooping head of the British Mandate, belligerent and wily, capable of making good its claims to land and statehood. Also like Athena, Israel was no creation ex nihilo, but had been gestating for some time before its abrupt delivery into the world; nearly all of the elements that came together to create the new State of Israel had previously existed in one form or other as part of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine under the British Mandate.

The Organizing of the Yishuv

The World Zionist Organization (WZO) was created in 1897 in Basel at the First Zionist Congress to pursue Herzl’s ideal of a Judenstaat, a state of the Jews.[3] Based in London, it had begun major involvement in Palestine as early as 1901, when it created the “worldwide charitable fund” the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeYisrael), which “allocated the bulk of its budget to massive land purchase.”[4] The WZO acted as facilitator of Jewish land purchases in Palestine (which it preferred to call the “Land of Israel”), and Zionist Commission in 1918 to act as “a semi-independent authority in dealing with British officials.” The Commission was replaced in 1921 by the Palestine Zionist Executive, which was in turn succeeded by the Jerusalem-based Jewish Agency for Palestine in 1929. The agency coordinated Zionist efforts in British-controlled Palestine and liaised with both the British Government and the League of Nations.[5] With the support of the WZO and of private investors like the Baron de Rothschild, the Yishuv was able to rapidly outpace the Palestinian Arabs in economic and political development.

By the 1940s, the Yishuv had undertaken new cultivation in Galilee and Judea, and had established its own agricultural and industrial research sector, educational system (including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), press and publishing houses, public health and hospital system, and network of labor exchanges and collective farm settlements.[6] It had developed its own native political parties, producing Palestinian-based political leadership separate from the international leadership of the WZO.[7] Nevertheless, it has been noted that “the Mandate allowed them to create a society, but not a state.”[8] Under the terms of the British Mandate for Palestine, the Jewish Agency was “recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and co-operating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish National Home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine, and, subject always to the control of the Administration, to assist and take part in the development of the country.”[9] The Jewish Agency, as a creature of the international WZO in accordance with the terms of the British Mandate, could not function as an organ of self-government; it was internationally recognized as a nongovernmental organization.[10] The Yishuv remained merely one segment of the Palestinian population subject to the British Administration as the mandatory under the League of Nations.

The Genesis of Jewish Self-Government

The first hint of constitutional autochthony appeared on April 19, 1920 in the aftermath of World War I, when the Yishuv constituted itself as the Community of Israel (Knesset Israel).[11] The community created the Elected Assembly (Asefat HaNivharim) as its instrument of self-government, using a system of proportional representation determined by direct, nationwide vote in which the entire community functions as a single electoral district. This electoral system had been previously agreed upon at the “Council of Eretz Israel” meeting at Jaffa on December 18, 1918.[12] In turn, the Assembly elected 36 members from within itself to form its executive committee, the National Council (Va’ad Le’umi).[13] This Cabinet-like body was divided into departments concerned with such public matters as “social welfare, health, defense, education, and religious affairs” (the Jewish Agency and WZO separately handled such matters as “immigration, land purchase, agricultural colonization, building, and industry”).[14] The Assembly and National Council were not recognized by the British Administration as representative bodies of the Yishuv until the promulgation of the Regulations for the Organization of the Jewish Community in Palestine of January 1, 1928.[15] The British may well have viewed them with some concern, as they bore enough resemblance to the Westminster-style parliamentary government to be recognizable as “the cornerstone of the infrastructure for Jewish self-government.”[16] The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry Regarding the Problems of European Jewry & Palestine called the Yishuv “a strong and tightly-woven community” and “a virtual Jewish nonterritorial State with its own executive and legislative organs, parallel in many respects to the Mandatory Administration,” and described the axis of the Jewish Agency and the National Council as the “Jewish shadow Government.”[17] By 1947, the Jewish proto-state had even assumed post office, tax collection, emergency relief, and electricity and water utilities functions.[18]

The Assembly and National Council, with their attendant quasi-public agencies, would ultimately provide the backbone of the new Jewish state. On March 25, 1948, the Jewish Agency and National Council jointly requested the United Nations Palestine Commission to appoint a Provisional Council of Government for the Jewish State, which was to include the “all the Palestinian members of the Executive of the [Jewish] Agency and all the members of the Vaad Leumi” and representatives of the various major political parties within the Yishuv.[19] When no response was forthcoming, the Zionist General Council (the presidium of the Zionist movement between World Zionist Congresses) convened on April 12 and created a new 37-member People’s Council (Moetzet HaAm). The People’s Council, “composed of the elected representatives of the World Zionist Movement resident in Palestine, of the executives of the Vaad Leumi, and of representatives of other public bodies,” in turn selected a 13-member People’s Administration (Minhelet HaAm) to act as its executive arm.[20] It was this People’s Council, so carefully composed of representatives of different Palestinian Jewish groups actually living in Palestine, that spoke on behalf of “the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist movement” to promulgate the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.[21] The Declaration cites with approval the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, the Mandate for Palestine of July 24, 1922, and the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, as having “recognized” and “reaffirmed” the “right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in their own country.” Notably, however, it does not cite them as a source of authority or legitimacy; instead, the Declaration proclaims the new State on the basis of the Jewish people’s “natural and historic right” to Eretz-Israel.[22] The constitutive authority of the Council was carefully stated to be autochthonous, deriving not from international permission but from inherent Jewish rights. As David Ben-Gurion was fond of saying, “Only the most daring of the Jews created this state and not the decisions of UM-Shmumm.”[23]

The State Takes Shape

The Declaration made few explicit arrangements for government of the new state. A Constituent Assembly (HaAsefat HaMehonenet) was to be convened no later than October 1, 1948, to adopt a constitution for the State of Israel (Medinat Israel). Until then, the People’s Council, reconstituted as the Provisional Council of State (Moetzet HaMedinat HaZmanit), would govern through “its executive organ, the People’s Administration,” likewise reconstituted as the Provisional Government (HaMemshela HaZmanit).[24] Among the first enactments of the Provisional Council of State was the Law and Administration Ordinance of May 19, 1948, which David Ben-Gurion described as a “miniature constitution,” defining the structure of the provisional state apparatus.[25] Among other things, it essentially reenacted all existing laws of the British Mandate, “except in so far as it was repugnant to the new order” (e.g., British “restrictive immigration, defence, and land transfer regulations” found to be undesirable for Zionist purposes).[26] Thus, existing government structures – “municipal corporations, local councils and other local authorities” and “the existing judicial system” – continued to exist and to function, under the aegis of the State of Israel.[27]

Longtime WZO leader Chaim Weizmann was elected president of the Provisional Council of State on May 16, 1948, and he was immediately treated as a head of state, paying a state visit to the White House at Harry S Truman’s invitation a week later on May 25 with “all the pomp and circumstance due the president of a sovereign state.”[28] Despite his gravitas as head of state, it became clear that he was expected to act as a figurehead, who was kept informed by the Provisional Government, met with ministers, and performed ceremonial functions, but was not permitted to actively participate in decision-making.[29] The presidency was not mentioned in the Law and Administration Ordinance, unlike the office of prime minister, which was specifically placed at the head of the Provisional Government.[30] Contrary to Weizmann’s hopes and wishes, actual power lay in the hands of the Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.

While conducting the war against the neighboring Arab states, Ben-Gurion also oversaw the distribution of portfolios in the Provisional Government, creating the ministries of Labor and Reconstruction, Commerce and Industry, Interior, Social Welfare, Religious Affairs and War Victims, Agriculture, Finance, Justice, Transport, Police and Minorities, Immigration and Health, Foreign Affairs, and Defense.[31] In creating an official bureaucratic state, he pursued a policy of mamlachtiout (literally “kingship”)—variously translated as statism or etatism—by which he sought to ensure that “political order (the state, maintenance of security) should subordinate—sometimes even replace—political organizations (party, Histadrut, Health Fund, etc.).”[32] The Jewish proto-state of Knesset Israel and its various ersatz public bodies were to be incorporated into the new, formal state apparatus, so as to avoid “the Leninist conception of a Partiestaat (party-state), a state system dominated by a single party.”[33] It was therefore necessary to absorb the existing structures into the state. The National Council of Palestinian Jews became the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Welfare, and the Political Department of the Jewish Agency became the Israeli Foreign Office; the Jewish Agency’s Political Department chief since 1933, Moshe Sharett, became Israeli Foreign Minister with few changes other than in title.[34] In the midst of fighting the Arab invasion, the Provisional Government passed the Israel Defense Forces Ordinance of May 23, 1948, transmogrifying the old Yishuv militias into a regular army.[35] In the months that followed the Declaration, some 3,000 civil servants were hired, drawn from Jewish officials who had served under the British Administration, the Jewish Agency, the National Council, the General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel (HaHistadrut HaKlalit shel HaOvdim B’Eretz Israel), military and paramilitary officers, and Yishuv political party functionaries.[36] Ben-Gurion’s mamlachtiout policy continued even after the end of the War of Independence and the lapse of the provisional state, exemplified by such measures as integrating the school system and employment bureaus into the state and creating a national health insurance plan to replace Histadrut’s Workers Health Fund.[37]

As the state apparatus took shape, the allotted time of the provisional system set up by the Declaration grew short. In accordance with the spirit if not the letter of the Declaration, the Provisional Council of State set elections for the new 120-member Constituent Assembly for October 10, 1948; due the outbreak of hostilities with the neighboring Arab states the elections could not he held until January 25, 1949.[38] Despite President Weizmann’s hope of avoiding the old Yishuv proportional representation system, which he felt “inevitably spawns splinter parties and sectarian politics,” the Constituent Assembly was elected in the same manner as the Assembly of Representatives had been, so that the members of the new legislature did not represent any particular constituency.[39] Meeting in Jerusalem on February 14, 1949, the Constituent Assembly accepted the resignations of the Provisional Council of State and replaced it as the legislative body of the state. Two days later, it passed the Law of Transition of February 16, 1949, establishing itself as the legislative body in place of the defunct Provisional Council of State, and changing its own name from “Constituent Assembly” to “Assembly” (Knesset). The law also established that the executive branch would consist of the ceremonial President of the State and the functional Government (led by the Prime Minister).[40] In a typical display of plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose, the new Knesset proceeded to elect Weizmann president, and Weizmann named Ben-Gurion prime minister.[41] Much as the Declaration had transformed the Yishuv into the State of Israel by assembling something formally new and different from a collection of existing and already interlocking parts, the Law of Transition—the so-called “small constitution”—created a new state apparatus out of one already in place, mutatis mutandis.[42] The forms had changed even though the faces stayed the same. Israel was metamorphosing into its final shape.

The Constitution Manqué

If the Law and Administration Ordinance and the Law of Transition were the “miniature constitution” and the “small constitution,” what then of the “large constitution,” implied by the Declaration’s charge to the Constituent Assembly to adopt a constitution no later than October 1, 1948? Dr. Leo Kohn, then Political Secretary to the Jewish Agency for Palestine, had begun work on a draft constitution at the Jewish Agency Executive’s behest immediately after the United Nations General Assembly had voted in favor of Resolution 181 partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states on November 29, 1947.[43] After the Declaration, Kohn submitted his draft to the Constitution Committee established by the Provisional Council of State established a on August 3, 1948; the draft is thought to have been influenced by the American, Irish, French, Chinese, and (Weimar) German constitutions.[44] The Kohn draft included several elements—a ceremonial president of the State serving a fixed term, a unicameral legislature, a government led by prime minister selected from the legislature—found in the Law of Transition. It also included many more that were not, such as a bill of rights and a judiciary, including sectarian “personal status” courts, a high court capable of nullifying unconstitutional laws, and a supreme court as a final court of appeal.[45]

The Constituent Assembly did not act on the draft constitution before reconstituting itself as the Knesset, and the members of Knesset (MKs) found themselves too preoccupied with other legislative business to take up the draft.[46] When it finally took up the matter from February 1 through June 13, 1950, the Knesset found the question of enacting the constitution to be highly divisive, “a microcosm of the conflict between state and religious interests that would continue to agitate Israeli political life.”[47] Although several issues were considered, such as protection of civil rights and civil liberties, governmental stability, and expediency versus untimeliness, much of the dispute revolved around the question of precisely how Jewish the Jewish state should be. For many Orthodox Jews, “only the laws of the Torah shall be decisive in all realms of life in the State,” a view incompatible with the Kohn draft’s separation of synagogue and state (“there shall be no state endowment of any religion”).[48] President Weizmann was no help despite believing that “a great deal will also depend” on the constitution; he preferred to have a constitution that did not necessarily resolve any of these complex issues, saying that “it would be sounder to have a constitution like the American, or almost constitution, like the British, at any rate for the beginning, and to feel our way for the first few years before laying down hard and fast rules.”[49] This advice was unclear and seemingly contradictory; at any rate, Weizmann seemed to believe that the best thing that could be done was to make haste slowly.

Ultimately, the inability of the Knesset to reach consensus on the Kohn draft resulted in something like Weizmann’s idea of an incremental British model. On June 13, 1950, Yizhar Harari, a Progressive Party MK, cut the Gordian knot by proposing a resolution “approving a constitution in principle but postponing its enactment until a future date.”[50] Thus, under the “Harari Decision,” the constitution was to be gradually “created as a collection of individual chapters, each consisting of a basic law to be passed separately by the Knesset”; basic laws require a special majority to amend them.[51] Henceforth the Knesset has been considered both the constitutive and legislative body of the State of Israel. In excruciating accordance with Weizmann’s desire to move slowly before committing to hard and fast rules, the Knesset has enacted only fifteen basic laws since adopting the Harari Decision in 1950; three of them have been nullified subsequent basic laws.[52] The Israeli constitution is a sort of jurisprudential metaphor for Israel itself, a finished product meant to be assembled from pre-existing parts. It may strike an audience familiar with American constitutional history as strange that finishing Israel’s constitution should be something frequently postponed for more pressing business. However, it is perhaps not surprising, considering that a constitution had nothing to do with creating the State of Israel, whose constituent components already existed and simply needed to be put together into the shape of a nation-state.

The Organs of State

The Knesset

Given the importance that Israel attaches to ancient history for its raison d’être, it is no surprise that the Knesset has an ancient predecessor by the same name: the 120-member Great Assembly or Great Synagogue (Knesset HaGedolah) of the Hellenistic period.[53] Sharing only name and number with its ancient namesake, he modern Knesset has retained the paramount role it created for itself in the Law of Transition in 1949. Both constitutor and legislator, the Knesset is supreme and cannot be vetoed by the president of the State or overruled by the Supreme Court.[54] The continuation of the old Yishuv proportional representation system from 1918 is unsurprising, given that the Knesset is the direct descendant of the Assembly of Representatives established by Knesset Israel in 1920, by way of the People’s Council and the Provisional Council of State, both of 1948. Statewide proportional representation has tended to strengthen party centralization and voting discipline, because members of Knesset (MKs) rely on party support for continuation in office; the party leadership is the chief constituency of any given MK.[55] It has also tended to create a state of perpetual coalition government. No party has ever won a majority, and the opposition has always been a permanent hodgepodge of “parties from both sides of the political spectrum.”[56] Weizmann’s fear that proportional representation would engender splinter parties and sectarian politics has been vindicated; more than 40 percent of Israel’s governments have called for new elections before the full four-year term of the Knesset because of the notorious parochialism of Israeli coalition government.[57]

The President of the State

The office of president of the State (Nesi HaMedinat) also has an ancient namesake; Nesi means “prince” in Biblical Hebrew, and was used as the title of the post-Exilic Jewish high priest in his capacity as head of the Sanhedrin.[58] Like the modern Knesset, the modern Nesi shares only a name with its ancient predecessor; unlike the modern Knesset, the modern Nesi has a fairly short modern pedigree. Descended from Weizmann’s figurehead presidency of the Provisional Council of State created in 1948, the office of president of the State was created by the Law of Transition. Thus, unlike the previous presidency, the president of the State is the official head of state, having a statutory existence rather than a merely customary basis.
Weizmann was elected president of the State on February 13, 1949, and the next day was inaugurated in Jerusalem, where the inaugural ceremony was ended with the words “Yechi HaNesi!” (Long live the President!), with one wiseacre answering “Yechi HaMelech!”(Long live the King!) instead.[59] It was not such a bad joke; in many ways the president of the State resembles the British sovereign. The president is an apolitical and largely symbolic figure, performing such ceremonial functions as signing treaties and formally appointing the cabinet, judges, state comptroller, Bank of Israel president, diplomats, and consular agents.[60] Despite the official prestige and nominal rank, Weizmann himself thought little of the presidency, which he had hoped would be a more substantive office than he had previously held. But Ben-Gurion continued to restrict him from actual participation in affairs of state. When someone picked up Weizmann’s handkerchief after he’d dropped it at a ceremony, the president thanked him for returning “the only thing I am allowed to poke my nose into.”[61]

The Government

Unsurprisingly, given the prominent involvement of the British in the formative period of the Yishuv, the executive branch in Israel resembles the British model of a cabinet drawn from and responsible to the legislature.[62] The Government of Israel has a lengthy pedigree in the Zionist past. Immediately descended from the Provisional Government and the People’s Administration of 1948, it can trace its heritage further to the National Council established in 1920 and the Executive of the Jewish Agency.[63] The office of prime minister at the head of the Government was explicitly recognized by both the Law and Administration Ordinance and the Law of Transition. The prime minister must be a MK and is invited by the president to form a government, invariably a coalition; individual ministers need not be MKs.[64] The prime minister is usually the leader of the largest party in the Knesset, but is not necessarily so. The Government is composed of representatives of political parties chiefly united by finding each other less objectionable than the opposition, and has traditionally been subject to acrimonious internal disputes, often over relatively minor issues: Ben-Gurion brought down his own Government in 1950 because he could not agree with his coalition partners over which party ought to control a proposed thirteenth cabinet portfolio.[65]

The Courts

The unloved Pollux to the Knesset and Government’s Castor, the Israeli judiciary oversees the functioning of an ethnic stew of Torah-derived rabbinical law (halakha) and “Ottoman legal codes, influenced by the Quran, Arab tribal customary laws, and the Napoleonic Code,” with an overlay of American legal practice and civil rights and British court procedure and common law.[66] It consists of a Supreme Court (Beit HaMishpat HaElyon), which doubles as the High Court of Justice (Beit HaMishpat HaGavoah LeTzedek), six district courts, and a number of magistrate courts, municipal courts, and administrative tribunals.[67] The Israeli judiciary lacks the power of judicial review and cannot declare laws unconstitutional, because the Knesset is both legislature and constituent assembly and cannot be overruled.[68] The Supreme Court does, however, have the ability to declare laws invalid if the Knesset has made a formal, technical error in passing them.[69]

Court systems have functioned continuously in Palestine for centuries, and the creation of Israel did not interrupt them. The Law and Administration Ordinance expressly re-authorized existing judicial structures “as long as no new law concerning the law courts has been enacted.”[70] This preserved the British Mandate-era magistrate’s courts, district courts, and Supreme Court, although it did require that an entirely new roster of Supreme Court judges be appointed (the British Administration had permitted Jews and Arabs to be judges in the lower courts but had reserved the Supreme Court bench for British justices).[71] The first Jewish Supreme Court judges were appointed in 1948 by the Provisional Council of State.[72]

The Kohn draft constitution had proposed a judiciary of magistrates’ courts, ecclesiastical courts (for “matters of personal status and of religious foundations and endowments” in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities), district courts, a High Court of judicial review, and a Supreme Court of final appeal.[73] The final form of the specifically Israeli court system was a relatively late arrival. The Law of Judges providing for appointment of judges by the president of the State after nonpolitical selection by a specially composed committee was not passed until 1953, prior to which judges had been appointed by the minister of justice or by the Government and Knesset.[74] Rather than a single law constituting it, the judiciary was cobbled together by the Law of Judges of 1953, the Courts Laws of 1957, the Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law of 1953, the Dayanim Law of 1955, the Qadis Law of 1961, the Druze Religious Courts Law of 1962, the Jurisdiction in Matters of Dissolution of Marriages (Special Cases) Law of 1969, and the Basic Law: The Judiciary of 1984, so that the final product rather resembles the Kohn draft’s proposal, although pointedly without the power of judicial review.[75]

The Israel Defense Force (IDF)

The Israel Defense Force (Tzva HaHaganah LeYisrael), or IDF (Tzahal), is the unified military, naval, and air force of the State of Israel; it was among the earliest mamlachtiout creations of the Provisional Government, under the Israel Defense Forces Ordinance of May 23, 1948.[76] The new IDF swore the required oath to the State of Israel on June 28, 1948.[77] In terms of lineage, it may be reckoned the oldest component of the official state apparatus; according to Moshe Pearlman, sometime IDF Spokesman, it traces its heritage back through the underground military Haganah (“Defense”) established in 1920, to the Socialist Zionist paramilitary group HaShomer (“The Watchman”) of 1909, to unofficial militias protecting Jewish property as far back as the 1870s.[78] Haganah had begun to acquire a rudimentary fleet while shepherding illegal immigrants in from Europe before and during World War II, and this maritime arm became the nucleus of the IDF’s naval component during the war with the neighboring Arab states in 1948 and 1949.[79] If one includes this entire extended heritage, the IDF had already accumulated an impressive array of battle honors by the time of its formal establishment, including fighting in 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936-1939, 1939-1945, 1945-1948, and 1948-1949.[80] This lengthy continuum is a vivid demonstration of Israeli entities’ existence prior to the official creation of the State of Israel in May 1948.


The State of Israel leaped into existence in 1948 and filled the desert with a lion’s roar, to be followed by a flowering in the desert. So much is the national mythos. To a very real extent, it is true; before 1948, there had been a haphazard system of interlinking communities and concentric authorities, some local and others international, under the eye of a foreign power. The Yishuv had been not so much a single thing as a collection of things, under various concurrent banners. Then the Declaration came like a thunderclap, and Israel replaced the Yishuv, substituting an increasing organizational order for the old heterogeneity. The raw materials with which Israel was created were old; the fundamental argument for its existence dates to Biblical times, and the components had begun being manufactured in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Israel itself managed to be new, through gathering these constituent elements and fusing them together in the crucible of the state. With unabashed chutzpah, it seemed to suddenly emerge ex nihilo as a powerful entity capable of taking and holding what it claimed as its own.

There is more to this story than the mere facts and dates. The historical process of creating Israel from the Yishuv was complex and sophisticated, and has had enormous implications not only for the government structure and culture of the State, but also for the demographics and political environment of the entire Middle East and the international community as a whole. The familiar narrative of Israel’s triumphant birth amid the aftermath of World War II is appealing precisely because of its elegant, dramatic simplicity. However, this narrative obscures decades of preparatory work and vast expenditure of money, time, and resources specifically oriented toward the creation of a Zionist nation-state, and reduces the creation of a functioning state to some sort of feat of pure will. Contemporary events in the Levant and Mesopotamia suggest that the theory and practice of modern state-building are very relevant and important to understand; dramatic but oversimplified narratives are unsatisfactory guides to understanding how a motivated body of activists constructs a modern state. Israel represents a recent and successful example of precisely this process and a critical study of its well-known if overly pat creation story reveals the tremendous effort, planning, and patience that went into preparing the way for the political genesis of the State of Israel.




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[1] Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, 199.

[2] Ibid., 199-201.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Hadara Lazar, Out of Palestine: The Making of Modern Israel (New York: Atlas & Co., 2011), 47.

[5] Smith, Arab-Israeli Conflict, 111-12.

[6] Joseph Dunner, The Republic of Israel: Its History and Its Promise (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950), 55, 57.

[7] Smith, Arab-Israeli Conflict, 113.

[8] Lazar, Out of Palestine, 4.

[9] League of Nations Council, Mandate for Palestine, July 24, 1922, in Smith, Arab-Israeli Conflict, 101.

[10] Dunner, Republic of Israel, 75; the Jewish Agency’s NGO status was cited as the basis for refusing to let it appear before the United Nations General Assembly special session on conditions in Palestine in April 1947.

[11] Leslie Stein, The Hope Fulfilled: The Rise of Modern Israel (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2003), 153; Stein translates Knesset Israel as “Community of Jews.”

[12] Martin Sticker, Pangs of the Messiah: The Troubled Birth of the Jewish State (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2000), 4; Michael Wolffsohn, Israel: Polity, Society, Economy, 1882-1986: An Introductory Handbook (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1987), 11.

[13] Sticker, Pangs of the Messiah, 4.

[14] Dunner, Republic of Israel, 117.

[15] Wolffsohn, Israel, 4.

[16] Sticker, Pangs of the Messiah, 4.

[17] Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Report to the United States Government and His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, April 20, 1946, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/angch08.asp, accessed April 23, 2014.

[18] Stein, Hope Fulfilled, 153.

[19] Harry Sacher, Israel: The Establishment of a State (Westport: Hyperion Press, 1976), 113.

[20] Ibid.; Sacher uses “National Council” and “National Administration” for the April 12 bodies, as do Dunner, Republic of Israel, 94, and Stein, Hope Fulfilled, 269. Preference is given here to “People’s Council” and “People’s Administration” of Smith, Arab-Israeli Conflict, 216-18, for the sake of disambiguation.

[21] Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, in Smith, Arab-Israeli Conflict, 216-18.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Amos Perlmutter, Israel: The Partitioned State (New York: Charles Scribener’s Sons, 1985), 158, explains that “UM is ‘United Nations’ in Hebrew; shmumm is a pejorative word”; he adds that shmumm “also rhymes with klum which means ‘nothing’ in Hebrew.”

[24] Ibid.

[25] David Ben-Gurion, Israel: A Personal History (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1971), 128.

[26] Leo Kohn, “The Constitution of Israel,” Journal of Educational Sociology 27.8 (1954), 369.

[27] Ibid., 370.

[28] Norman A. Rose, Chaim Weizmann: A Biography (Harrisonburg: R. R. Donnelly & Sons, 1986), 441-42.

[29] Ibid., 445.

[30] Law and Administration Ordinance No. 1, May 19, 1948, in Ben-Gurion, Personal History, 98.

[31] Ben-Gurion, Personal History, 129.

[32] Perlmutter, The Partitioned State,133.

[33] Ibid., 131.

[34] Emmanuel E. Gutmann, “The Government of the State of Israel,” Journal of Educational Sociology 36.8 (1963): 383; Dunner, Republic of Israel, 129. Sharett remained at the Foreign Office until 1956.

[35] Ben-Gurion, Personal History, 109-111.

[36] Marver H. Bernstein, “Israel’s Capacity to Govern,” World Politics 11.3 (1959): 409.

[37] Perlmutter, The Partitioned State, 140.

[38] Wolffsohn, Israel, 5.

[39] Rose, Chaim Weizmann, 431; Dunner, Republic of Israel, 127.

[40] Wolffsohn, Polity, Society, Economy, 9; Law of Transition, February 16, 1949, in Ben-Gurion, Personal History, 336-37.

[41] Kohn, “Constitution of Israel,” 370.

[42] Joshua Sinai, “Government and Politics,” in Israel: A Country Study, ed. Helen Chapin Metz (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), 181.

[43] Kohn, “Constitution of Israel,” 370.

[44] Amihai Radzyner, “A Constitution for Israel: The Design of the Leo Kohn Proposal, 1948,” Israel Studies 54.1 (2010): 2, 6.

[45] Dunner, Republic of Israel, 121-22.

[46] Kohn, “Constitution of Israel,” 372.

[47] Sinai, “Government and Politics,” 181.

[48] Stein, Making of Modern Israel, 108; Radzyner, “Constitution for Israel,” 6.

[49] Rose, Chaim Weizmann, 431.

[50] Sinai, “Government and Politics,” 182.

[51] Wolffsohn, Israel, 6.

[52] Ibid., 9.; “The Existing Basic Laws: Full Texts,” last modified 2005, accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.knesset.gov.il/description/eng/eng_mimshal_yesod1.htm; the English-language official Knesset website does not yet list the new Basic Law: Referendum, passed March 12, 2014, for which see Tova Dvorin, “Law Requiring Referendum for Land Concessions Passes,” Israel National News, March 12, 2014, accessed April 23, 2014, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/178425#.U1hjE6LDXrc.

[53] Barry Rubin, Israel: An Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 192.

[54] Sinai, “Government and Politics,” 185; Wolffsohn, Israel, 6.

[55] Bernstein, “Israel’s Capacity,” 404.

[56] Leslie Stein, The Making of Modern Israel, 1948-1967 (Malden: Polity Press, 2009), 108-09.

[57] Rubin, Israel, 193.

[58] Leo Kohn, “The Titles High Priest and the Nasi of the Sanhedrin,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 48.1 (1957), 3.

[59] Rose, Chaim Weizmann, 451.

[60] Wolffsohn, Israel, 51.

[61] Rose, Chaim Weizmann, 445.

[62] Sinai, “Government and Politics,” 185-86.

[63] Wolffsohn, Israel, 5, 40.

[64] Ibid., 41.

[65] Stein, Making of Modern Israel, 111.

[66] Sinai, “Government and Politics,” 194.

[67] Ibid., 196.

[68] Bernstein, “Israel’s Capacity,” 411.

[69] Wolffsohn, Israel, 6.

[70] Law and Administration Ordinance No. 1, May 19, 1948, in Ben-Gurion, Personal History, 101

[71] Suzi Navot, Constitutional Law of Israel (Alphen aan den Rijn: Kluwer Law International, 2007), 140.

[72] Nir Kedar, “Democracy and Judicial Autonomy in Israel’s Early Years,” Israel Studies 15.1 (2008), 31-32.

[73] Dunner, Republic of Israel, 122.

[74] Kedar, “ Judicial Autonomy,” 26.

[75] Sinai, “Government and Politics,” 194.

[76] Moshe Pearlman, The Army of Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), 210; Ben-Gurion, Personal History, 109-111.

[77] Pearlman, Army of Israel, 149.

[78] Pearlman, Army of Israel, 12; Pearlman erroneously dates HaShomer to 1907, confusing it with its immediate predecessor Bar-Biora, named after Simeon bar Giora, a leader of the first century Jewish Revolt that resulted in the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

[79] Ibid., 203-05.

[80] Ibid., 7, 9.

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